Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yes, Lisa, There is Poetry. . .Or, What Makes a Poem a Poem?

I received this email a few weeks ago.  I reproduce and answer it here with Lisa's permission, because it is representative of a widespread confusion:
Dear Annie Finch:
I discovered your February 2009 Harriet blog entry “Poetry in Notion: What Does That Word Mean Anyway?” while searching for a definition of poetry versus prose. I’ve hit up against that same question in my own “poetry” and am very much hoping you might give me your input. Did you ever arrive at a conclusion regarding where poetry begins and prose ends that you yourself found satisfying?
Some background: I think of myself a poet, yet twice in the past few weeks I’ve been told that what I write is prose with line breaks 

arbitrarily imposed.  I’ve always been deliberate in my line breaks, so this caught me by surprise. I could at least see the objection on the first piece that elicited this comment—but am flummoxed by the second. Which led me to your blog entry.
The “poem” in question is at
If you don't mind offering your opinion, is this poetry (even bad poetry!)? It lacks meter and traditional form, but I'd thought it was a poem....
I don’t mean nor want to impose. And please know that I’m not requesting a critique. It's just that I don’t know how much of this comes down to personal style and, because I don't understand, am frankly about ready to hang it up as a so-called “poet.”
Thanks for any comments that you may have to offer. Even if it’s a simple “yes” or “no” to the “is it poetry?” question, I’d appreciate it more than I can say.
Yes, Lisa, I did reach a conclusion regarding where poetry begins and prose ends.  After decades of thought I settled on this definition  (which can be found in my book The Body of Poetry): "a poem is a text structured (not merely decorated) by the repetition of any language element or elements. Any language element can be repeated to structure a poem." In your poem, the repeated language element is the linebreak (see chart below).  So in a sense the person who said what you wrote was lined prose is correct, but they are missing  the fact that lined prose IS a kind of poetry:  the use of the line itself makes your text into a poem. 

That lined prose is poetry may sound laughable, but it is not. As I discussed in my Harriet post, the notion that a text has to be good/profound/inspired/lyrical to be a "real poem" (while it was useful to clear out some Victorian cobwebs a century ago), has lately been the root of more evils than it has solved.  Nobody goes around saying that my kid's dance concert is not a dance concert, or that my amateur paintings are not paintings; they are clearly paintings, just amateur ones.  The art of poetry is the only art where people routinely attach an evaluative judgment to the definition of the art itself.   This mis-thinking has ended up eroding the definition of poetry to the point where many people, like you, are not sure they can even recognize a poem--let alone a good poem--when they see one.

While some people have tried to find clarity by asserting that only good poems are "real" poetry, others have tried to find clarity by asserting that only formal poems are "real" poems--an idea you referred to when you mentioned that your poem doesn't have rhyme or meter.  But a poem doesn't need rhyme or meter to be a poem; all it needs is for any language element to be repeated in a patterned, structuring way, so that a reader can predict the recurrence of the pattern.  In your poem, you can predict that every line will be broken before it reaches the end of the page.  That makes it indeed a poem.  However, linebreaks are not a very conspicuous language element, which leads us to the final part of the definition:  "The more conspicuous (palpable, audible, tangible) the repeated language element, the more formal the poem feels to us."  It is this perceptible conspicuousness in the repetition that makes a poem satisfying to many readers.  Your poem is a poem, but it is not a formal poem because linebreaks, unlike rhyme or meter, are difficult if not impossible to feel/hear/touch in the body if you are reading the poem, or to hear when the poem is read aloud (unless someone consciously "performs" them).

The chart below should help you get a sense of where your poem fits in the larger field of poetic possibilities.  Once you know what kind of poetic structure you are working in, then you can begin to get better at it, to develop skill at using your chosen repeating language element (so far, the line break) to incite power, suspense, pleasure, and insight in your readers, and to consider branching out into using other kinds of repeating language elements as well.  I am just finishing proofreading a book called A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poems which will be published in Spring 2011.  It has chapters on every aspect of writing poetry, from inspiration to how to get published, including how to use tension and surprise to write strong free verse, and how to learn to recognize meters in your free verse so that you can either enhance or avoid them.  Maybe this book will be helpful to you also, Lisa.  Meanwhile, do check out the chart below, and enjoy!  —Annie

  • "Definition for a Continuum of Poetries" 
    adapted from The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self,  by Annie Finch (University of Michigan Press, 2003)

    A poem is a text structured (not merely decorated) by the repetition of any language element or elements. Any language element can be repeated to structure a poem. THE MORE CONSPICUOUS (PALPABLE, AUDIBLE, TANGIBLE) THE REPEATED LANGUAGE ELEMENT, THE MORE FORMAL THE POEM FEELS TO US. These are just a few examples of the many language elements that can be repeated to make poems.

    Note:  I have located each elements in the category where I feel its primary impact would strike a reader/listener.  But please note that there is certainly overlap: rhyme has a visual aspect, counted verse has an aural aspect, syllabic verse has a conceptual aspect, and so on.—AF

    Aural Elements

    numbers of beats/accents (MAKES) accentual poetry
    patterns of accent and nonaccent (MAKES) metrical poetry
    sounds within words (MAKES ) rhyme, alliterative verse
    syntactic patterns (MAKES) chants
    groups of words (MAKES ) chants
    sentences or phrases between stanzas (MAKES) refrain
    number of sentences (MAKES )counted-sentence prose poem
    terminal hiatus  (MAKES ) prose poem

    Visual Elements

    Terminal hiatus (MAKES ) prose poem
    visible shape of language (MAKES ) concrete poetry
    numbers of syllables (MAKES ) syllabic verse 
    spaces on page (MAKES) field poetry
    line breaks (MAKES ) free verse
    numbers of words (MAKES ) counted verse
    hidden elements MAKES punctuation poem, alphabet poem, etc.

    Conceptual Elements
    operation with extratextual system (MAKES) procedures with source texts
    pun and riddle (MAKES ) pun poems, etc.
    intertextual operations (MAKES) procedures with missing letters, acrostics, etc..


Lisa said...

Thank you so very much for the response...I'll be studying it for a quite a while! And I'll keep an eye out for the books that you suggested.

In regard to the piece I linked to, it also employs repetition and pattern in language. Wouldn't those be "language elements," as well--not just the line breaks?

Andrew Shields said...

You probably explain this in your book, but can you say here what you mean by "terminal hiatus"? Very curious!

Annie Finch said...

Dear Lisa,
The difference is that the repetition and pattern in the piece you linked to don't STRUCTURE the piece; they merely decorat it. The difference between structure and decoration is that structure can be predicted--it's the scaffolding without which the poem as a poem would fall down (the rhyme of a sonnet, the linebreaks in free verse). But decoration can't be predicted, and it isn't necessary for the poem to be itself.

Annie Finch said...

HI Andrew,
"Terminal hiatus" is my term for the pause at the end of a prose poems. Here's more on it from the forthcoming A POET'S EAR: "One also might see the repetition of the ending of the prose poem as a sort of ultimate line break which happens once at the end of each prose poem and serves as a repeating structural element. After all, some contemporary poetry does not concern itself with endings at all; this is generally true of poems whose written embodiments are considered to be transcripts of performances, such as the poetry of David Antin. So the ending in a prose poem shouldn’t be taken for granted, and if you read a number of prose poems in a row, you begin to get a sense for the repeating rhythm of what I call the “terminal hiatus” at the end of each one."

The terminal hiatus certainly occupies the outer edge of the idea of poetry being structured through repetition, since it "repeats" only once per text, but it does structure each prose poem, and it does so in the same way in each prose poem, giving it to me the implied feeling of a repetition (it also seems to "repeat" in a more intense way the sensation of the line breaks that are so conspicuously absent in prose poems).